Do you know who a documentary distributor’s best friend is? The film critic, that’s who.

Take a look at 2010’s ten best reviewed films of the year at

  1. Marwencol
  2. Waste Land
  3. GasLand
  4. Toy Story 3
  5. How to Train Your Dragon
  6. Exit Through the Gift Shop
  7. The Social Network
  8. Inside Job
  9. Mugabe and the White African
  10. Animal Kingdom

Six out of ten are documentaries! If this is a surprise to you, it shouldn’t be. This year is no aberration. I used to edit a critics’ poll of the favorite films of the year, and, inevitably, a documentary or animated film, would be at the top. (But last year was particularly impressive, with docs garnering the top three slots.)

Why is this? Well, it’s because critics are human beings. (Hard to believe, I know.) In fact, they are human beings with big, often soft, hearts. (Harder to believe, I know.) So, when they sit down to watch a hundred to two hundred movies in any given year, they watch them on a sliding scale. The ones that are about something tend to get a more generous review. They will watch a documentary about injustice with a more forgiving eye than, say, the latest Will Smith vehicle. It’s a conspiracy in our favor: film critics are biased to give documentaries the benefit of the doubt.

Am I complaining? No. Do I think Marwencol really is a better made film than True Grit? Do I think critics think so? Not at all. Still, it’s at number one, while True Grit is down at number 14. It’s partly to do with the nature of creating a “consensus” around films. The docs and animated films tend to benefit from this process because fewer critics are willing to bash a film from either of these genres, unless it’s really bad. On the other hand, critics can have particular likes and dislikes, and some feature filmmakers or stars tend to rub them the wrong way.

So, rock on film critics; keep grading docs on a curve. They need all the help they can get.

Published by

Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen